Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath. — A. Anupama
Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath.
Conoley is founder and editor of VOLT, the literary magazine of Sonoma State University, where she currently works as professor and Poet-in-Residence. A book of her poetry translations, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, is expected out later this year (City Lights Pocket Poets Series). Previous collections include The Plot Genie (Omnidawn Publishing), Profane Halo (Wave Books), and Tall Stranger (Carnegie Mellon University Press), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Other honors include the Jerome J. Shestack Award from The American Poetry Review, the Fund for Poetry Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was born in 1955, in Austin, Texas, where her parents owned and operated a rural radio station. Her father fought in Guam during WWII and was honored with a Silver Star for bravery and three Purple Hearts.
In an interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley comments on her process of poetic inquiry: “In the longer sequence poems, “Begins” and “Peace” I found a formal construct that seemed to me to work well with the question or notion of whether or not peace and war could co-exist on an experiential plane, if we are to have any peace at all. So the short lines began to press against one another line to line, oppositionally, in a paratactic way. I love that parataxis is Greek for ‘placing side by side,’ because I called this short lyric form I started to work in “Sapphic paratactic”—that was my private name for it.”
Parataxis, according to the OED, is a grammar term for “the placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them, as in Tell me, how are you?” In the poem “The Patient,” Conoley cunningly plays this unhinged element of poetic craft against firmly attached biological and material elements.
I am the patient. That is my mineral fact.
I have long term storage in double helixes
my two long polymers of nucleotides
my backbone made of sugars and phosphate groups
joined by ester bonds. I see imagist pears dissolving down
golden arms I hear needle-less the sleep aid cd’s
real violins, then float blue-black
at the eventide, injure
of the taut to and fro, cut-back
asphalt road, a path of greening twigs nourishing
The poem continues for five pages, shaking loose any false adhesions. In Conoley’s paratactic tactics, the phrases are often balanced in length and only separated by the line break, not punctuation. Another five-page poem, “My Mother Moved My Architect,” takes the inquiry deeper, this time plying parataxis with the grain of the physical disconnections.
My mother moved
cutting out newspaper clippings
making the life-long collage
had I sense
I would have
papered the hallways with
instead it is an ephemeral art
a flaxen gene
her left shoulder
out of its socket
The end of the poem continues the line of inquiry through doubling of images (echoes, heads, tail lights, gloves), and then turns quietly to become an ars poetica.
My mother moved my architect
she slipped the bolt
like the great sea chest
none of us
had ever seen open
My mother moved my architect
she made it pump and eat
She made this lake
where I come to
over-identify with the dead and call
Dear Echo to my echo,
She made me nude —sheer— and nude again
She made it interesting right up to the end
I have to think what is with
these two heads blurred and blended, this veil
not seen back through
white gloves with the green stain
as you entered the sunless woods
best to keep the road a little feral where the color is
and your world part dust
fed and unkilled I am not through
being a poet or a being
What fallen ash
is the power to live
is the grace to keep
and what good
is temporary measure—
did you say thank you and were you thanking
The shorter poems in the sequence titled Peace use parataxis in tandem with opposites (descend v. ascend, vision v. blind, vagina v. cock, peace v. war). But in the sixth part of this sequence, the oppositional forces dissolve a bit, and the caesurae (by which I mean the spaces within the lines indicating pause) reveal time working up through the lines while the breath slips down deep.
one mystery of the breath: it does not hover
in the body but spirals
and up to two hours in the less known
mammalian diving reflex water must be
ice-cold some people survive
if time began we would do it again
the lungs two oars in the middle of the ocean
Conoley envisions specific people and events in her inquiry, too, as in “Opened,” which includes references to both the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. From the second page of this six-page poem—
so that’s where
the two bullets went through.
What sphinx pushes up out of the fog in the parking lot
our moral imaginations. If it’s a gun law,
this tragedy will pull through.
And what was there to and did she
see, gritty blue sink of desert night sky with her
off to the side like a wonder, or
your basic hospital room, sleep,
a solitary male nurse, a husband.
In her interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley explains some of her inquiry into peace and nonviolence in the process of writing this collection: “I was initially concerned that some might read the title as a call to action, or a promise of peace, somehow. The book contains neither, but is really more of an extended meditation/inquiry of the notion…. Once I began to realize what I was writing about, I started to read about the lineage of nonviolence that runs through Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (nonviolence) dates back to the Upanishads, 8th or 7th century BCE, which bars violence against all creatures (sarva-bhuta). I began to think about these historical figures who wrote about peace and how to get it, and how they may still operate in or haunt our lives.” In the poem “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the speaker moves between abstract reflection and the concrete actions of doing laundry and looking outside at the garden. Without shying away from the great leader’s failings, Conoley’s poem seeks balanced footing on a field of percolating magma.
God doesn’t like
pussies, cocks, girls, Gandhis all together
well, you’d have to ask the girls,
It’s a subrosa geological planet, with shifting hot mantels of tectonics,
someone should tell Einstein—
even though it’s too late—who said,
“Future generations will hardly grasp that
such a man as this walked upon the earth.”
Conoley attempts a glimpse of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Toughness of the Serpent,” which ends this way—
MLK really tired at this point.
Wonder what he’s got on his mental sky.
Moon yellow scorch of the morning iron, serene, serene
The 12-part poem that ends the collection is titled “Begins,” and it does exactly that, offering no conclusions, offering instead to launch you in a dozen different trajectories with the caffeine hidden in the parataxis—
for one eye, a small Mesopotamian figure
for one eye, a big abstract
I look, and your face is like a part of speech not spoken
a tragedy so near its comic ash
one eye is my future, one eye, my mausoleum
the divine in what is seen
in which we view only the shade of
possibility: a semi-reluctant scribe I read her book trembling
Peace holds some beautifully revealing poems in the middle of the collection, especially “A hatchet with which to chop at the frozen seas inside us” and “Plath and Sexton,” which deserve their places at the center. In these, the duality is stripped away—from the first: “what if paradise was only lifting the veil to flirt.” And from the beginning of “Plath and Sexton”:
there should have been a third
my friends and I
to not feel so incomprehensible
we were carrying your dead books
we were washed in the blood of them
but we were wanting one more
The collection’s overall organization seems to concentrate these central poems at the heart. Though Conoley claims to offer no answers, she insists on the energy of inquiry throughout her lyric. Peace lends us the price of using the percolator, even as the K-cups in the vending machine are steep.
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.